US agencies consider setting stricter standards on asbestos in the workplace

Asbestos, a fibrous mineral long considered one of the most dangerous industrial materials to which workers are exposed, suddenly has reemerged as a pressing issue.

* The US Environmental Protection Agency this week said it may propose a ban on asbestos products - such as vinyl floor tiles and cement pipes - in the next few months.

* A US Department of Education report says it will cost $1.4 billion to remove asbestos from 14,000 public and private school buildings.

* Labor unions and health officials have been pressuring the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since March to lower the exposure levels to asbestos fibers in the workplace. Now OSHA says it is considering setting a rare ''emergency temporary standard'' within the next two weeks.

Scientists, on the other hand, acknowledge certain types of asbestos fibers are dangerous when inhaled, but say the scientific data currently available are not accurate enough to set overall standards, let alone an emergency standard.

And America's tiny asbestos mining industry says the renewed concern about the dangers of asbestos is only a Reagan administration effort to score political points with labor in an election year.

OSHA standards apply to asbestos manufacturers. Asbestos mines and mills are under jurisdiction of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

''So far, MSHA has always followed OSHA standards on asbestos exposure,'' says Robert J. Pigg, executive director of the Asbestos Information Association of North America (AIANA).)

The current OSHA and MSHA standards of two fibers per cubic centimeter of air have been in effect since 1975 and 1978, respectively. When a study established asbestos as a carcinogen late in 1975, OSHA proposed lowering the standard to one-half fiber per cubic centimeter. Nothing came of that proposal.

Since then, thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits have been brought against the US government and the Manville Corporation, once the largest US asbestos manufacturer.

In March 1983, George H. R. Taylor, then director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO, urged OSHA to renew action on the asbestos standard.

OSHA director Thorne G. Auchter replied in April that because of the ''serious nature of the hazards'' of asbestos he had decided to accelerate the standard-setting process originally scheduled for 1984.

Since late summer, OSHA has been discussing the unusual step of setting a strict, emergency temporary standard on asbestos that would go into effect immediately and last six months. But the final decision rests with US Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, he says.

Mike Volpe, Mr. Donovan's press secretary, says if and when OSHA makes a formal request for an emergency standard, it will be carefully examined. The industry has sued OSHA and won on four of the last five emergency standards.

Much of the asbestos industry already operates at levels below the current standard and could lower workplace levels even more - over time. That is why Mr. Pigg of AIANA says: ''We support some lowering of the standard through the normal rulemaking process. But we oppose any emergency temporary standard. . . . I can't speak for the mines, but a milling operation just couldn't operate at 0. 5 [fibers per cubic centimeter].''

Scientists such as Robert Clifton, an asbestos specialist at the US Bureau of Mines, argue as well that it is impossible to monitor fibers - which may be any mixture of asbestos and other fibers - at such low levels with the current technology.

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